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Why framing matters—and polls only give you so much

Understanding how people think about human rights, not just what they think, is critical to effective communication. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on public opinion and human rights. Español

Existing research on framing has a lot to offer in terms of increasing support for human rights issues. A framing perspective provides important cautionary notes about how we should use polls as part of a communication effort. How people think, in addition to what they think is critical to effective communication, but polls are not great ways to understand the how question. Polls are also not always effective in deriving recommendations for how to communicate effectively about social issues. In fact, using descriptive polling to make communications decisions can actually lead to unproductive outcomes.

Why framing matters and why now?

Human rights issues are currently at a critical juncture. Freedom House has warned for the last nine years that respect for democratic principles, including the political and civil liberties that form the foundation of human rights, has declined. In fact, in their 2015 report the watchdog organization asserted that democracy is now under greater threat than at any other point in the last 25 years. There are a number of factors driving these trends, pushing human rights issues onto the back burner and putting at risk the ground already gained.

The factors threatening democracy and human rights promotion are creating an urgent need for action—but they also hint at opportunity. When issues are actively negotiated in public and expert discourses, the way that people come to understand the issues is up for grabs. On human rights matters, the result of these contests over meaning might very well be the difference between seeing progress on these issues and seeing them backslide further. Bringing a framing perspective—the idea that meaning is shaped by how issues are presented—seems critical at this juncture.

Understanding is frame dependent

We know that the way issues are presented influences what people take away from messages, their attitudes toward the topic, and the degree to which they do (or do not) support specific solutions.

The fundamental tenant of framing research is that people do not come to messages as empty vessels. The fundamental tenant of framing research is that people do not come to messages as empty vessels. Instead they come with deep, implicit and highly shared understandings of how the world works that they apply to make sense of information and formulate opinions.

Applying framing theory

Effective frames are those that advance existing ways of thinking that position people to access and apply our information. When we apply this framing perspective, there are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Opinion polls only tell you so much. Measuring people’s attitudes and support for issues and policies via polls can be helpful as a surface snap shot of what people think (assuming instruments are strong and questions carefully worded) but these instruments do not tell you why people have these opinions. For example, a poll about criminal justice in the US might tell you that people favor specific reforms, but without knowing the underlying patterns of reasoning that people are using to reach these decisions, results are of only limited utility to communicators. Such an understanding can help communicators be strategic. An understanding of how people reach their opinions is vital in helping us make decisions about how messages on a given content domain should be framed. Looking at deep patterns of thinking also has the benefit of yielding results that are more durable than surface measures of opinion.

2. Figuring out what works (and what does not) is an empirical process. Too many times, communicators use descriptive polls as their sole means of formulating messaging strategies. While polls help researchers formulate hypotheses, without controlled experimental components, they do not tell us how messages will work to shift, change or channel public opinion and increase support. The only way to know what a message will do is to actually see what it does—to test its effects.


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People approach descriptive polling with deep, implicit and highly shared understandings of how the world works that they apply to make sense of information and formulate opinions.


3. More evidence is not the answer. Framing helps us see that effective communication is not about getting more data or descriptive analysis of the problem into the public discourse. For example, Hans-Bernd Brosius and Anke Bathelt have shown that “base rate data” (e.g., prevalence statistics) are consistently ineffective in changing people’s understanding of a wide range of phenomena. Evidence, as much as we are told otherwise, does not speak for itself. Communicators should not ask it to.

4. Correcting people’s mistakes is a bad way of correcting their mistakes. We also know that taking on and correcting people’s misperceptions does not make for effective communications. Yet, this is a strategy employed in almost every field, as represented particularly poignantly in the ubiquitous myth-fact sheet and the practice of “myth-busting”. Given the dominance of this communications practice, a group of communications scientists (e.g., Norbert Schwartz) set out to test this strategy. They found that people exposed to myth fact sheets consistently misremember the myths as fact; that this effect gets worse the further in time they are away from the exposure and; the kicker, that they attribute the myths, that they see as true, to the source of the communication. Priming is powerful.  Reminding people of what they already know and then thinking you can rationally argue them out of their position is not how cognition works—and thus not how communicators should use their valuable resources.

5. Finding resonant messages should not be your ultimate goal. Finally, we know that while resonance is an important component of effective communications—in fact you can’t have effective messages without resonance. Resonance—how strongly people identify with a message and how emotional its content is—is certainly part of effective communications, but it must not be the end goal. Highly resonant messages can actually lead people in the wrong direction and away from our desired communications goals. For example, we have found that compassion and empathy are highly resonant values for people when thinking about addiction issues. However, this resonance backfires if your goal is to increase support for public policies and programs that deal with addiction. In short, while effective messages have to be resonant, resonant messages aren’t always effective.

My point in all of this is that we need better ways of understanding how people think about human rights issues—ways that go deeper than and add layers to polling results. We also need a set of empirically tested strategies that can lead people in the direction that we want to take them. Human rights issues need better frames.


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